The Magic Behind Sak Yant Tattooing

Sak Yant Traditional Khmer Tattooing

I've always been interested in traditional Sak Yant tattooing also known as Yantra tattooing. Partly because of aesthetics, partly because of my own family background in and around South and South-East Asia.

I never cared enough about it to really go through with it. That changed when I met Davin from Bamboo Sak Yant in Siem Reap, Cambodia. He helped me understand the reasons and importance behind Sak Yant and I was happy to get a couple pieces done on my back and arms. Yes there was pain involved but he made the experience interesting, fun and dare I say it - enlightening.

Sak Yant, literally means to tap a yantra. Tap meaning tattoo and yantra meaning prayer or literally speaking, a contraption or machine. The idea being the yantra or machine i.e the design which is being tattooed is used to navigate your way directly to commune with the Gods.

Prior to opening his own tattoo shop, Davin himself was a monk who learnt and practiced with the Federation Khmer Sak Yant and before that he was part of Green Gecko, a great project in Siem Reap that supports former street kids and their families. 

Davin would use his traditional bamboo stick, which is slightly modified to allow hygienic needles and modern ink as it lasts longer and is generally better. Yantra designs tend to be geometrical based; patterns and shapes or animals. Garudas, tigers, turtles, monkeys and many more. They  offer protection, power, fortune, luck and as many benefits as you can find. 

Once complete the idea is, you get your fresh ink blessed and you pay in 7 types of fruit, flowers, incense  and sometimes even cigarettes. With the blessing comes the idea that you are supposed adhere to at least five main rules otherwise the tattoo won't do its job.

- Don't kill another living creature.

- Do not steal or lie

- Do not be unfaithful

- Do not become intoxicated

- Do not speak ill of your family

Sak Yant has been around for thousands of years in some form and it was a lovely experience to get the bamboo 'stick and poke' style done. Watching the needle being dipped into the ink and then repeatedly jabbed, by hand is a different experience from the tattoo gun. Also from a safety point of view, I was happy to get it done by someone who practiced a high level of hygiene. If you want the back of a temple, queuing with a bunch of farang/barang (foreigner) this isn't it. This is just a legit tattooist who is steeped in his own Cambodian tattoo culture and is happy to share it.

Check out Davin here via his Instagram and he's pretty responsive and fast. He also uses tattoo guns if you're not keen on the giant bamboo stick rammed repeatedly into parts of your body.

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